Sunday, January 18, 2009

Is the Apocalypse Coming?

“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy – 2006

Cormac McCarthy is best known for penning the novel, “No Country for Old Men,” which the Cohen brothers made into a movie of the same name. Essentially, McCarthy has one major theme in his best novels – the brutality of life, and efforts to deal with it. “Blood Meridian” is his most famous – based on the actual history of Texas and Mexico, when a group of convicts lead by John Glanton slaughtered and scalped their way across the country, while working for the government. This book contains far more of the reality of Manifest Destiny than the nostalgic, though apparently ‘realistic’ western novels of Larry McMurtry like “Lonesome Dove.” McCarthy also completed a “western trilogy’ as his version of the history of that time, a trilogy I have not read.

As Mike Davis pointed out, the bloodletting of the 101st Airborne’s Tiger Force in the Vietnamese Central highlands in the 60s, which also featured scalping and wholesale destruction of civilians, was no different than the western history McCarthy brought alive. Brutality seems a constant, especially when connected to imperial warfare or attitudes.

“The Road,” however, is science ‘fiction’ about a post-apocalyptic future. It is the story of a self-reliant man and his young son, trying to find warmth and ‘good’ people in a world destroyed; burnt to the ground, gutted, inhabited by cannibals due to the lack of food - full of rain, wind, dim sunlight, ashes, empty houses, dead trees, animals and corpses. It is never clear exactly what destroyed the world, but from McCarthy’s descriptions of human vices, it was probably something typically dark and… human. It is a great American novel. And it was written relatively recently, in 2006. It has also been turned into a film, though I have not seen it.

What I would like to address is science fiction. The bulk of science fiction that I am familiar with in this country portrays the future as either a medieval high-tech kingdom, or a completely devastated landscape, full of violence and barbarism. The former is laughable in that the technology goes along with completely assbackwards social relations – as if the science making the technology possible – and reason itself – were invisible, trumped by some cretinous hierarchies full of knights, kings and wizards. This vision of the future is usually on various other ‘planets’ – “Star Wars” and “Dune” are good examples. The Star Trek series was actually ‘progressive’ in a odd sense, given it’s choice of multi-ethnic crews, women and ‘reasoners’ like Spock, and not wholly enthralled with the Middle Ages.

The other version of the future, however, has become dominant. Some older books about the triumph of fascism in the U.S. – both Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” (already reviewed in these pages) and Jack London’s “the Iron Heel” come to mind, are not ‘science fiction’ but they deal with, partly, the same theme – a theme of barbarism. 1931s “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s famous dystopian 1949 novel, “1984” (Orwell was a socialist) are the historical ancestors of this type of fiction.

However, in the cheery U.S., things did not pick up until later. Since Phillip K Dick published, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” in 1968, post-apocalypse is the place to be in science fiction. I am sure people more familiar with the genre than me will be able to come up with many examples. Dick’s book was followed by the Road Warrior film trilogy (presciently focused on the fight for oil in a depleted world) starting in 1979-1981; the film “Blade Runner” done in 1982, based on Dick’s book; the Terminator series, starting in 1984; and now a plethora of similar fare –the Matrix trilogy, and now most recently, “I Am Legend.” All of this indicates this type of story is hitting a nerve.

From the anarchist left, Edward Abbey wrote two books about the fight against fascism in a hopeless post-apocalyptic world destroyed by environmental decay – “A Novel (Plume)" and again in “Good News.” These books are far different than the "Monkey Wrench Gang" (also reviewed in these pages.) The very gifted and hilarious writer, left-liberal T. Coraghessan Boyle, wrote 2000s “A Friend of the Earth," about the environmental destruction of the world. While the rain never lets up, a group of people try to save rare animals like lions in their homes. McCarthy’s “The Road” is the latest in this tradition. It combines environmental catastrophe and barbaric human relations.

McCarthy is a writer of spare power. He tends to lean towards 18th and 19th century words, and enjoys long sentences in that same tradition; makes up many new words, which look somewhat like some other, more familiar, words; and creates words that we normally use hyphenated or separately. He uses repetition in “The Road’ to increase the power of the vision. He attempts Biblical cadences. Because of his attempt at universality, you cannot tell what part of the country he is writing about, except it is somewhere in the U.S. – first it seems it is in the west, then it looks like the southeast. Only one town is mentioned – Rock City. Tennessee?

McCarthy, at the same time, is not always a factual literalist. He is interested here, I think, in creating a myth of the creation of the new world out of the … literal ashes of the old. The Son and the Man (there is a hint of Christian iconography - the young Son seems to be the most sympathetic to the pathetic, thievish people they meet) constantly travel, and rarely stop, but stay on the road instead. It is not clear why they continue on the road, as there is no evidence it will get warmer by the ocean they are heading towards, or by going south, or that they will find ‘good’ humans by following it. In fact, it is very dangerous to be on it. They leave several places that have plentiful food – one a quite well stocked underground bunker - to cram some of the goods, instead, into their shopping cart, which they push down the dark, cold, dangerous, ash-covered highways.

This constant vision of a destroyed world – whether by atomic radiation, disease, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, war or the triumph of fascism – reflects a deep fear running consciously and unconsciously through U.S society. It reflects a circular view of history, and and, at the same time, a 'terminal' view of history. But also a view that admits no optimism – no “utopia,” only a “dystopia.” “Utopianism” to the conventional modern mind is completely out of the question - utopianism is for light-minded fantacists and other cloud-dwellers, EVEN in fiction and science fiction. The prevalence of Christian Armageddon philosophy (the “Left-Behind” series dwells on the collapse of society) in the U.S. right wing indicates that this strand crosses the traditional political spectrum.

On the other hand, Soviet science fiction did not have such a sour view of the future, but instead speculated about what it would be like to live under high-tech communism, where conflict is disappearing, and where life has become less ardurous. Now, the future is seen by bourgeois science fiction, including McCarthy, as almost wholly negative. “Salvation” is either through the imaginary mechanism of “the Rapture” or through the few remaining “good” people banding together to fight the ‘bad” people – sort of a moralistic tribalism. Which is what the rapture is about too. In essence, the bourgeois solution to apocalypse has nothing to do with preventing it in the first place. It does not understand the source of the apocalypse, or the forces strong enough to stop it. It believes that the worst of humanity will triumph. It now only has to do with weathering its inevitability. In a sense, these people are already getting prepared for the results of … peak oil, global climate change, economic collapse, ethnic war, and global war. Of course, warning of it can act as a deterrent, and I feel that this is McCarthy's purpose.

There are other responses, however. Trotsky said that human history would not automatically lead towards utopia or communism. The choice Trotsky and Rose Luxembourg gave us, either “Socialism or Barbarism”, relates to the conscious development of the working classes, and not some automatic process. The action of the working class is necessary again. With the collapse of Freidmanite capitalist finance, and the bankruptcy of the major banks, insurance companies, hedge funds and the auto industry; with oil hitting a production peak a year or two ago; with world carbon levels above the point of no return; with a massive world recession in the making, with fascistic religious and ethnic war being promoted everywhere – revolutionary action is again urgent. We are presently even farther along in the development and decay of capitalism than we were in the 1930s. The election of Barack Obama is a step of bourgeois ‘hope.’ If Obama cannot rescue the present system, then the next people up on stage are the revolutionaries of all stripes, and the masses of people who have lost faith in the present system. This does not, anymore, seem an extreme statement to make.

-- Red Frog, 1/18/2009 - I did not buy it at Mayday books, but Mayday has many progressive novels in stock. Buy one!


AA said...

Red Frog, there's SF around that doesn't quite fall in either of your genres. I'm thinking specifically of Richard Morgan's trilogy -- Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Woken Furies. Barbarism and violence are there, but not a devastated landscape. It is miles ahead of Bladerunner, and of the cyberpunk novels by William Gibson and Neil Stephenson. It's high-tech to the extent that consciousness itself has been digitised -- each human has a cortical stack which records all thoughts and experiences. This stack can be transferred after death -- money allowing -- to vat-grown bodies or completely synthetic bodies. The stacks can even be plugged into virtual realities. The world has expanded to include some nearby star systems, and large corporations still contend for influence and power -- economic, military, and political. The mood is dark but the landscapes not devastated.

Red Frog said...

So it views the future as an expanded, high tech version of corporate control? OK, that is the, I guess, optimistic scenario for the present structure.

Three trends then? Thanks,

Renegade Eye said...

See this.

Pulverized Concepts said...

2 things

Cormac McCarthy is the darling of English Lit faculties because he's a member of one and because of his unique style, highly developed in "Blood Meridian". His expository sentences are, as you say, long, twisting and filled with words you've probably never seen and definitely never heard uttered. On the other hand, the speech of his characters is monosyllabic and barely above the level of simian grunts. English professors look at this as genius. Ordinary readers consider it schtick.

"This constant vision of a destroyed world . . .reflects a deep fear running consciously and unconsciously through U.S. society." Really? What makes you say that? How do the literary efforts of a fairly insignificant number of SF writers indicate any such thing? Do Superman comic books reveal a subconscious longing for power amongst teenage boys? Do Lawrence Block novels demonstrate the thief in all of us? It's all just entertainment.

A said...

Red Frog, As a follow-up to my original comment, much of the SF you're quoting is dated stuff. Furthermore I'm a bit sceptical of connecting SF to political theory of any stripe: the SF has to work on its own terms, and usually appeals to those with some sort of techno-fetish (like myself).

You should make a stab at reading "Altered Carbon." There are many online reviews. One of the better ones is:

Red Frog said...

Every novel has a political subtext, or cultural/political subtext. Even Sci Fi. Name me one that doesn't. Hopefully one I have read.

As to the post-apocalyptic genre, the examples are so many that "insignificant' does not do them justice. Especially when looked at in film, which is a mass medium that the small Sci Fi readers cannnot outnumber.

I myself think Cormac McCarthy is somewhat monochromatic. I did not like "No Country" partly because of the simplicity of the violence - as if violence alone had some significance. I don't hang around English classes, so I wouldnn't know what 'they' are thinking.

For me, I enjoy the language.

AA said...

To the extent that some sort of society is always being depicted and the protagonist is involved in a social milieu, sure, there's always a cultural and political subtext, or the subtext can be read in. But an SF writer who's out to make an explicit political message in the garb of SF will probably write pretty lame fiction and readers who are primarily looking for political and cultural insight would do better to look elsewhere.

Primary to good SF are scientific and technological ideas and the shape these would give to future societies.As such they are works of imagination. The science and tech is the driver; the politics, society and power is ancillary or corollary. Not the other way around.

And not only must the science and tech idea be original but by implication so also must be the politics and culture.An SF novel that depicts a high-tech future where planetary systems are fighting among themselves for hegemony is going to make pretty lame SF. Asimov tried this with his Empire trilogy -- but Asimov is passe.

Let's take something like "Bladerunner" -- a movie analysed by David Harvey in his book, "The Condition of Postmodernity." "Bladerunner" does depict a future dystopia that is tightly controlled, and where mega-corporations have moved out into star systems. But this is not what makes it interesting. What makes it interesting is the blurring of the distinction between human and artificial. This is a recurrent theme in modern science fiction, particularly Gibson, Stephenson, and Morgan. The artificial replicants are indeed ironically more human than the humans in their pathos and their capacity for feeling, and this is incidentally what arouses our sympathy for them. A second related theme is of tech being a cause of further estrangement and isolation among humans -- and not so much an enabler of some future utopic order. Again, a common theme in modern SF. So here we are seeing a connection between tech and culture. But the political order per se is just the backdrop to this story, and not its driver.

Red Frog said...

Driver or ancillary? So why is the ancillary feature dystopic? Accident? Why is the machine ethic embedded in corporate fascism? Another accident? Or perhaps, the preferred social background - the only thing they can envison socially?

What I find fascinating about Sci Fi is what it says about society, not technology. But yes, I can see that the fascination with technology is what it caters to in its readers.

At any rate, "The Road" shows that technology might have lead the world into a dead end. Just as the Matrix films postulate - technology - the machines themselves - enslave the humans. So the question always is - 'who's technology?' I.E. which human structure controls the technology? Or does technology just float above social structures?

AA said...

You raise some interesting points and that deserve further elaboration. But it's difficult to do them justice in comments to a post.

The first interesting notion is that tech is inherently dystopic. As Morgan states in one of his novels, the sex drive, the drive for power, and the drive towards tech are all interwoven at some deep level of the human psyche. Tech is an instrument of power and centralised control. This is why tech ==> dystopia.

If memory serves, Heidegger argued against tech because of the power and control thrust of all tech developments. Indeed, without tech, we could not have fascism, corporate or otherwise. Orwell's dystopic vision in "1984" crucilly relies on technology.

In good SF, the tech isn't some free-floating structure over some arbitrary society -- it's interwoven with it. One isn't possible without the other. Alternatively, good SF writer will explore the societal nd political impact of how new tech.

Our technological development would be inconceivable without a fascist orientation, an obsession with watching, measuring, controlling,dominating, and modifying.Tech and society move in tandem, each reinforcing the other. SF that doesn't take this into account is unlikely to be convincing: it will be mindless mush like "Star Trek" or "Space Family Robinson" -- or even the cartoon series, "The Jetsons."

Red Frog said...

I don't think fascism is based on technology. You can have repression, domination and violence - in a tribal situation. Fascism is the form it takes in somewhat advanced capitalist societies. Technology can help - or hinder.

At any rate, I guess we'll have to chat about this in person.